TOLEDO — The new attack ad from Rebuilding America Now, one of several super PACs supporting Donald Trump for president, never actually attacks. It plays two clips of Hillary Clinton speaking, one of her asking rhetorically why she's not "50 points ahead," and one fielding a question on whether she's always told the truth.
"I’ve always tried to," Clinton says in the clip, from CBS News. "Always. I have tried in every way I know how to level with the American people. Always, always."
That's the cue: Start laughing. As Clinton recovers from an August polling swoon, running far ahead of Donald Trump on most issue polling and on the often predictive favorable/unfavorable rating, she is not shaking her persistently low polling on "trust." It tops the reasons why many millennial voters who agree with Clinton on policy are flirting with third party candidates. It's limiting her ability to make the sort of attacks against Trump that Barack Obama used to defeat Mitt Romney. And it's a daily source of angst for the volunteers trying to turn out the Democratic vote.
"I hear it all the time," said Ellen Jones, 67, a Clinton fan who'd been canvassing for voters in Toledo. "I say, give me an example — other than email. And they don't have one. The opposition has done a real convincing job telling the public that she's not honest."
In the latest full Washington Post/ABC News poll, conducted before the first presidential debate, just 33 percent of voters called Clinton "honest and trustworthy," to 62 percent who said she wasn't. Forty-two percent of voters considered Trump trustworthy. After the debate, a follow-up poll found more voters believing she had told the truth. But among the voters who thought both Trump and Clinton had bobbled their facts, more voters thought Clinton had done so on purpose.
That gap has been confirmed, not altered, by Trump's actual record of misstatement. In a measure that several Clinton volunteers said they cited to voters, the fact-checking site PolitiFact has rated 71 percent of Trump's highest-profile quotes as mostly or entirely false. Just 27 percent of Clinton's statements hit the same metrics. While polling since the debate has shown an increase in Clinton's support, Republicans, when they've been able to stay on message, have accused her of crafting a dishonest, unrelatable on-air persona.
"She looked like a Batman villain," said Jon Stainbrook, the Republican Party chairman in Toledo's Lucas County.
Clinton's campaign has never ignored the trust issue, or the ceiling it may put on her support. While it views the polling that shows Trump more trusted than Clinton as a fluke, it views another metric — "who understands people like me?" — as a better barometer of Election Day support.
But as the post-debate polling suggested, the divergent styles of Trump and Clinton led to diverging views of whether they told the truth. Clinton's falsehoods, during the campaign and previously, have been of the lawyerly, evasive kind, parsing words about the investigation into her private server or blaming the Great Recession directly on the Bush tax cuts. Trump's falsehoods have tumbled out with his campaign-trail bluster — false, but true-sounding claims about the threat of refugees in America, or the rate of crime in inner cities. In a column from the bottom of Clinton's September polling swoon, the New York Times's Paul Krugman worried that the 2000 election was repeating itself and preventing Clinton from ever being trusted.
"Throughout the campaign most media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore — whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate — as slippery and dishonest," fretted Krugman. "Mr. Gore’s mendacity was supposedly demonstrated by trivial anecdotes, none significant, some of them simply false."
Since then, Clinton has avoided Gore's fate of being julienned over quotes from a presidential debate. But the sky-high untrustworthy numbers hold down her vote, and help more damaging stories circulate online. On Monday, the most viral news story on Facebook and Twitter was not a news story at all, but a specious article from TruePundit, a conspiracy news site founded seven months ago. WikiLeaks, which has packaged Clinton emails in searchable formats, tweeted a story in which "State Department sources" told TruePundit that Clinton had asked aides whether WikiLeaks's founder Julian Assange could be murdered by drones.
On Tuesday morning, the speculation about what WikiLeaks might have on Clinton boiled over — in the worst way. A news conference, ostensibly to commemorate 10 years of the site's existence, was hyped by Trump allies like Alex Jones and Roger Stone as the release of election-swinging, damaging information. On Twitter and Facebook, for much of Monday, the Assange news conference — and the attendant, unsourced story that claimed that Clinton had once speculated about "droning" the WikiLeaks founder — was the most popular story.
The news conference revealed nothing, but the fact that it trafficked at all reflected a persistent mistrust of Clinton. The WikiLeaks story was not simply shared on the right; the site had earned credibility with young progressives for its national security leaks, and cemented it when it published tranches of hacked email from the Democratic National Committee. Even without a push, Assange was part of a running story line that reminded young voters why they did not trust Clinton.
"It's mainly the email scandal that's really got me," said Merrik Lojewski, 20, a home-brew coffee and soda maker in Toledo who lets Clinton volunteers hold phone banks at his home. "Sometimes I go on WikiLeaks, and some of the emails are just crazy. I literally looked up the word 'bomb' and it was 900 emails, 900 conversations. It's hard for me to get past that."
In conversations over several days, few Clinton voters were willing to say that their candidate was honest. More frequently, they argued that misinformation about the candidate was overwhelming anything positive they could say about her.
"Facebook is a real problem," said Nancy Baum, 62, inside Clinton's Monday rally in Toledo.
Jenny Segura, 46, said that she would be "voting against Donald Trump" before explaining what she liked about Clinton. Sitting with friends after a visit to the farmers market, she confessed that it was easier to support Clinton when she assumed that the issues bothering other voters were overhyped.
"There's just a general mistrust of all politicians," she said. "I know what's going around, but I don't put stock in it. What is the problem — that she deleted emails? Didn't she keep hard copies of them?"